Unlike preschool children, grade school children are better equipped intellectually to understand what divorce actually means. They can comprehend that their parents no longer love each other and are …
Unlike preschool children, grade school children are better equipped intellectually to understand what divorce actually means. They can comprehend that their parents no longer love each other and are choosing to live separately. This understanding results in different reactions than if their parents had divorced during the preschool years.
Elementary children tend to feel deceived. Even in quarreling homes, most assume that mommy and daddy will live together forever. “How can this be?” “We won’t be a family anymore?’ Such questions reflect uncertainty. “If mommy and daddy aren’t going to be together, what will happen to me?” After one parent actually leaves the home, grief is usually evident since there is a strong sense of loss that many children feel intensely. As one child said to me, “My daddy has four mommies (he had been marred four times), but I know that he still loves my mommy the most and one day will come home.” Such statements reflect the intensity of the child’s grief plus the longing for the absent parent to return. This may result in a state of depression where changes in eating and sleeping habits become obvious. The child either can’t sleep or oversleeps and/or can’t eat or overeats. Also, the child’s depression may result in an inability to concentrate, a lack of interest in life in general, crying spells, irritability, withdrawal, and if severe enough, an overall sense of hopelessness. If the parent chooses not to be involved in the child’s life or minimally involved, the child may also feel rejected. “What’s wrong with me?” “Why doesn’t daddy want to spend time with me?” Such feelings often leave the grade school child feeling abandoned and insecure. Despite these feelings, most children continue to worry about the future of both parents. “Will my mommy be okay without my daddy?” “I wonder if my daddy is lonely?” Also, many new fears become reality. “Will my daddy pick me up after school?’ “Will I like spending time at two homes?” “Do I have to be nice to my mommy’s new friend?” Such fears may result in anger. Depending on the personality of the child, he may direct this anger outward as shown in misbehavior or inward as shown in feelings of shame, self-blame, and sadness.
What can parents do to make this transition as easy as possible? (1) First and foremost, encourage your child to talk about the divorce, with parents, with relatives, with family friends. Children who are encouraged to express feelings, questions, and concerns are much healthier emotionally ten years following divorce than children who suffer silently. Remember this when your child needs to vent. (2) Be sensitive to signs of depression, fear, or troubled behavior. Seek to understand these behaviors as a reflection of dealing with the divorce. If these behaviors continue more than six months, consider seeking professional help. (3) Continue to assure your child(ren) that life will not always be this painful; that in time much of the pain will heal and life will be better. (4) Protect your child from the adult realities resulting from divorce. Financial concerns, unresolved issues with your spouse, work, stress, and a multitude of other adult issues should be discussed with adults, not your children. (5) Talk to other adults in your child’s support system (teachers, ministers, neighbors), sharing with them what is going on in your child’s life. Don’t hesitate to ask for the assistance of these adults.
Rob Coombs is a professor with a doctor of ministry degree and a doctor of philosophy with an emphasis in Family Systems.
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